Irony is becoming increasingly unsatisfying for readers just as it’s being utilized with greater frequency as a crutch by writers. A reader’s thirst for modern pop culture’s clumsy, obvious attempts at irony can usually be quenched by a slogan on a bumper sticker or a t-shirt; many are growing weary of writers who insist on force-feeding it to us in full twenty-two-page comic book servings. Readers are asking for more, for better. (Yes, even readers of horror.) And you might not think it to look at the cover, but Tag delivers exactly that: something more. Something better.
Tag offers that most exquisite of rarities: an original horror premise. That said, I feel an obligation to note that Tag warrants a label more specific than “horror,” and yet I confess I’m reluctant to say just what that label is, for fear of turning some of you away from what is a deceptively witty story. But then, I also concede I’m at a loss as to why I feel such a need to protect writer Keith Giffen and artist Kody Chamberlain when Chamberlain himself does more with his misleading, cheesy cover illustration to undermine Tag‘s chances of being taken seriously than I could ever do by typing one stupid little word I really don’t want to type. Here’s a hint, at any rate: Tag should be filed under a specific subgenre of horror which has in recent years reached an unprecedented (and arguably inexplicable) peak in popularity, a subgenre adored simultaneously by earnestly affectionate enthusiasts and knowing, ironic hipsters. The word I’m avoiding is the horror equivalent to those other inexplicable modern passions: the monkey, the pirate, the ninja.
You could argue, as you take a look for yourself at the cover to Tag, that all obvious craft and competence aside, perhaps Chamberlain and Giffen don’t want to be taken seriously. However, you wouldn’t make that argument if you looked beneath Tag‘s unfortunate cover, ‘cause what you find inside the book is the antithesis of its packaging: subtlety, intelligence and true horror (make no mistake: not only is the central conceit of Tag original, it’s also the scariest premise since Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby.) While the covers might lead you to believe you’ll be reading a throwback to the smartass, dumbass, grab-ass horror schlock of 1980s Hollywood, what you find inside is something very much a product of its time, with any irony serving as a seasoning rather than the full meal itself.
You can tell Tag is a contemporary horror tale, not because its end-of-issue revelation is a character saying “A blog!” or because it features the word “google” as a verb (as well as what may well be my favorite new adjective: “deadish”), but because it knows its audience well enough to offer us something different, something new, a skewed approach that is, if not necessarily outright postmodern, at least damn clever. And it is a testament to Keith Giffen’s storytelling prowess that one of Tag‘s most uncomfortable, dreadful scenes concerns the protagonist and his ex-girlfriend conducting a casual internet search in her apartment. No screaming monsters or rotting flesh necessary, which raises the issue of Tag‘s one significant shortcoming (aside from the cover; that ghastly, idiotic cover): when it (thankfully rarely) ventures deeper into the territory of Overt Horror, Tag becomes suddenly much less convincing and seductive. Tag is a comic that is at its best when it is merely flirting with the reader. It would ideally be utterly devoid of anything even resembling a money shot (much less on its cover; can I say again how much I hate the cover?) The story only stumbles when it presents us with an actual… well…
Zombie, goddamn it. I didn’t want to say it, but the story is essentially about a zombie. But that is so limiting and wrong, because the premise of Tag is so much more challenging and troubling than that. Don’t go looking to the Boom! Studios web site for the premise, either, ‘cause it’s one of those ideas that works better in the context of a narrative; Boom!‘s own summary isn’t particularly appealing. The word “Pagan” alone somehow lessens the whole story for me; the word never appears in the first issue, but it’s a key component in the web site’s synopsis, which has me worried about the direction of the next two issues (Tag is a three-issue limited series; the third issue will be published this month.) If you’ve watched the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you may have a sense of what I’m getting at; that season’s character arcs for Buffy and Angel likely left you crying uncontrollably, but when you try to summarize it to a skeptic, there’s no cool or diplomatic way to say, “So Angel’s this vampire who was cursed by Gypsies…” And while we’re on the topic of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the best analogy I can offer for how intrusive and off-putting Tag‘s moments of Overt Horror can be is to cite the season five episode “The Body,” wherein the one instance of actual vampire-related action is so distracting and ill-fitting, even in the context of a show about vampires, that it threatens to rob the entire episode of its considerable emotional impact.
Happily, Tag‘s successful instances of “flirting” constitute the majority of the first issue’s content (there’s only one significant appearance of an all-out “zombie.”) And while it’s impressive that a writer can inspire suspense through a let’s-search-the-internet scene, it’s doubly impressive when an artist can maintain the narrative momentum in such a scene. Tag‘s artwork, by Kody Chamberlain, is a precise match to Giffen’s writing, in that in its best moments it’s convincingly dark because it’s subtly dark, rather than the trying-too-hard silliness you find in more mainstream horror titles like Spawn. I don’t know that there’s a specific name yet for the style Chamberlain employs here, but it’s been among my very favorites for a few years now, and in my feeble attempts to describe it I usually stutter about clumsily for a moment before deciding on “Dave McKeanish,” which is not only woefully inadequate but most likely, for a good number of readers, misleading. “Dave McKean at his least surreal and abstract” might be a bit closer to the mark, but ultimately I’m reduced to spending half my allotted space describing what Chamberlain’s work is not: it is dark, but not overwrought or absurd; it is creepy, but not ugly (in fact, it’s really quite remarkably beautiful, in its way); it has a hypnotic quality, though it is not dreamlike in any traditional manner; it is unsettling in its familiarity despite the fact that it is not overly realistic; characters are often defined by lines that appear at times sharp and even cruel, yet the backgrounds fade into a vague, black softness. Ultimately, one comes away from Chamberlain’s artwork with the sense that it is likely to age very, very well, despite the increasing popularity of its (deceptively complex) style.
I will not spoil Tag‘s simple but inspired premise (though if you think “Zombie” and read the title, you’ll have some sense of it), but I’m happy to share a couple short examples of its cleverness. For one thing, our protagonist, Mitch, who is ostensibly a zombie though in fact he’s not what you’d consider a completely traditional zombie by any means, has to remember to force himself to breathe in order to speak. Also, “If I forget to shift my weight regularly, I lock up.” This isn’t played for laughs (much.) It’s just an example of a talented writer looking at a familiar idea in a new way. The dialogue too, is very fast and fun, again reminiscent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
“Never seen this side of you before.”
“You never showed up dead before.”
Even Mitch’s narration is more amusing than the dialogue in many comics (”There’s the girl I fell out of love with!” and “It’s official, Mitch. You’re a self-centered son of a bitch” being two prime examples.)
Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay to Tag is this: if you’re happy with the bumper sticker variety of irony and prefer your zombies old-school, this is still a legitimately creepy and terribly intriguing little horror story. You can enjoy it on either level, really (which might go some way towards accounting for my contradictory populist/elitist feelings expressed in this review.) I’ve been spending part of my evenings lately listening to old cassettes of William Golding’s enchanting reading of his own Lord of the Flies, and Golding wanders off on all these lovely, mildly irreverent, conversational asides between chapters, and in one he notes that he has just passed the point in the novel at which school teachers probably begin to ask their students, “Can you not start to see something going on below the surface here?” He concedes that certainly there are parallels to be drawn between his story and any number of our civilized institutions, but then he adds, “But I advise you, lads and lasses, stick to the surface as long as possible. It’s a story.”
Admirable advice which, against my pretentious leanings, I begrudgingly pass on to any of you who are happy to keep reading the grab-ass, throwback zombie stories I mentioned earlier. And for the rest of you…
You’re asking for more? For better?
Well, Tag is more.
Tag is better.